In my experience…inclusion enhances performance
Recently I’ve done work with stakeholders in the world of college sports including athletes, coaches, athletic directors and administrators. Success in collegiate athletics drives enrollment, revenue and recognition for colleges and universities. This makes student-athletes extremely valuable to their institutions. Through this work it’s been fascinating to see the parallels between college sports and the ‘work world’ most of these athletes will likely join upon graduation.
I thought about my time on athletic teams and teams at work and why some of them succeeded and some didn’t, and there’s a common thread. In my experience, inclusion enhances performance. This is true in sports as well as in business. A colleague who was president of the school board of a 25,000-student district once told me that if he had to summarize what students want most, it’s to be included. There are many definitions of ‘included’ but the underlying desire and sentiment is the same.
I used a framework for this work that focused on the opportunity impact to athletes and the value impact to coaches and administrators when a program of inclusion is formally implemented. This same framework can be used in most organizations when working with leaders and teams on engagement and inclusion. While not strictly sequential, there is value in viewing it as a process.
INPUT -> INSIGHT
We started by asking athletes to voice their input about various aspects of themselves as individuals, the team and the university. The word ‘voice’ is used instead of ‘provide’, because while they are similar, there is more strength of impact when someone feels they have a voice vs just being asked to provide an answer. The unspoken message to the athletes is “we value you and your perspective”. The benefit to coaches and administrators is the previously unknown insight gained from the athletes’ perspectives. My observation is that a lot of assumptions are made within teams vs actual engagement and communication.
INCLUSION -> TEAMWORK
The objective of this framework is to show athletes their inclusion is a priority of the team and university. Many times, in competitive environments like collegiate athletics, as well as business, the individual feels isolated. While there will always be instances where focus and scrutiny are and should be on the individual when it comes to performance and capability, that doesn’t need to be the case 24x7. It’s unhealthy and negatively impacts the athlete’s ability to deliver athletically and academically. When athletes feel included the coaches will see an improvement in teamwork. Inclusion requires communication, communication results in alignment, alignment improves the athletes’ ability to work together.
RELATIONSHIPS -> UNITY
Once athletes are given a voice and feel included, relationships on the team grow and improve. This isn’t to say that positive relationships don’t already exist, rather that existing relationships strengthen and new relationships develop. This is especially true once athletes realize their peers feel many of the same things they feel (pressures, highs, lows, competing priorities) and therefore they realize aren’t alone because others are on a similar path. The value realized by coaches is better team unity, which is critical. Unity doesn’t mean the athletes always like each other or even get along outside of the team environment, but it does mean the bond is strong for the shared goal of team success.
PERFORMANCE -> RESULTS
I mentioned sports adage “Look Good, Feel Good, Play Good” in a previous article. When athletes are included and engaged it may not do much for their ‘look’ but it certainly makes them ‘feel valued’ which enhances their performance. On the coach / team / university side of the equation, if the athletes are performing better there is a higher likelihood of achieving the desired results for the coach / team / university.
Student-athletes are outcome-focused but not always engaged. Engagement starts with inclusion, which is just as applicable in organizations and businesses as it is on athletic teams.
Special thanks to Lori Thomas, for her insight into collegiate athletics and her passion for innovation and engagement of student-athletes, and to Joe Worlund, for his knowledge, vision and feedback from the athletics administration and coaching perspectives.